March 2014

White Women Too.

The film « 12 Years A Slave » won the Academy Award for best motion picture, becoming the first movie directed by a black director to take the highest trophy at the Oscars. It also claimed best adapted screenplay for John Ridley and best supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o. Besides the Hollywood celebration and the beautiful all-encompassing photo of the whole cast, I would like to comment on an aspect of the film that drew my attention and remained afterwards the leitmotiv novelty in the visual representation of a slave narrative.

I went to see the movie in Paris, France, after reading about the violence of some scenes and hearing puzzling observations by French critics. Though horrific and painful to watch, the beatings and the deliberate dehumanisation of enslaved characters depicted similar incidents I knew Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and other writers described in their accounts of the lives of slaves. The film gave depth and dimension to the horrendous scenes that compose the conventions of the slave narrative writing: whippings, slave auction, description of families being separated and destroyed, sexual harassments and oppression, account of Christian slaveholders, and portrayals of cruel masters, overseers or mistresses. The picture Steve McQueen presents of that last group of figures, the mistresses, is an interesting one and one that pervades and haunts, aesthetically and psychologically speaking, the whole story.

Whereas in slave narratives mistresses appear and disappear but never take centre stage, in the film white women are in attendance and their presence can be seen as symptomatic of the constructed relations the institution of slavery determines and of the power dynamics within race, sexuality and politics. In this painful and beautiful film, white women witness, participate and victimize. There are aesthetically haunting sequences in which women first stand on balconies or porches framed by the architecture of the plantation house and the abundance of weeping willows before moving flittingly away. They emerge both as the flesh and spirit of this southern décor or as the lingering shadow in the background.

As the story unfolds, Mary Epps, who is the most prominent white woman, becomes more visible and trades places and roles with her husband navigating the full range of cinematographic exposure. Her own victimization on account of her lower social status drives her to devise plotting and manipulative schemes, and to impose harsher sanctions. When the cult of her true womanhood, hinted at by the purchase of the sewing kit at the nearest store, is demeaned and corrupted by the desires of her husband, she ends up consolidating the designs of masters and of the institution of slavery. Mary Epps offers viewers a rare look at a female gendered perspective and exploitation of the institution of slavery. She reveals a perverse disturbing portrayal of oppression that challenges any notion that gender created solidarity and understanding between white women and enslaved black people, whether men or women. Her own interest for Solomon mirrors her husband’s for Patsey. What Jacobs defines as feelings of jealousy and rage in her book is carried a step further in the film to include white women’s desires. When Mary Epps asserts an effective agency and takes full responsibility for her actions, she does not reach out to other oppressed people but struggles to maintain her deep-rooted though fleeting domination.

Though I happily join in celebrations for the Oscars, I was unsettled by beautiful images of the South that could not hide the “dirty secrets” of the institution of slavery and revealed how white women’s acts of defiance often served to secure and reinforce the existing system of slavery through which they expressed their frustration and desire.

Arlette Frund, University of François – Rabelais, Tours

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